Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do


The Roman poet Virgil predicted that once no one knows anymore on how to cut the olive tree and tame a wild horse, then the Roman empire shall collapse. He uses here two indicators to turn towards some predictability in life. The message is simple and carries weight in light of what happened in history, but usually Hollywood produced films distort the picture. Not the loss of practical wisdom in relation to nature is viewed as cause of the downfall of Rom, but the corruption in politics. This includes infighting, back stabbing and above all such a folly of man that even Shakespeare could not analyze all in his description of ‘Caesar’.

The World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg at the end of August 2002 aims to rectify the ‘environmental’ situation as defined at the previous summit in Rio. Then, that is 1992, there was brought about an agreement on indicators by which to measure sustainable development.

Such indicators mean a political commitment. They relate politics to a kind of methodology that allows societies to obtain sufficient data, in order to know where regulation, new measures and the drawing of some practical consequences are needed. Politics lives off the feed-back reality is prepared to give for the policy measures taken. An intelligent system allows then responsibility for decisions to be defined in terms as to where responsibility has to be taken as a lead to safeguard life on this globe.

The World Summit in Johannesburg has become necessary because governments have since 1981 watered down considerably these indicators. Apparently what counts in a media dominated world is what catches the eye of the public opinion. These are symbolic gestures or all energies absorbing images whether in a good or bad sense but which makes news and can be sold as such.

That has nothing to do with an informed public opinion about hazards of industrial pollutions nor about the real options available to man. Drilling in the Artic can be justified by sophisticated feasibility studies of some consulting company, but the fact is that by driving away wild life, it shall alter the survival habits of the natives living in that area.

At the very least, it should be admitted that man’s continuous intervention into nature has not merely destroyed rare species of birds, animals and flowers, but altered the material conditions of life so dramatically, that it is feared in future conflicts and even wars shall break out over water and oxygen resources. Yet to perceive what is happening alone in terms of ‘pollution’, there is needed a much more differentiated approach to what has become mistakenly be known as ‘environmental protection’ allowing for still stranger interventions while legitimizing a wrong kind of development altogether.

The way the hard questions of planning have been by-passed by ministries alone when granting building permissions for still another hotel complex in a sensitive area suggests that ‘environmental standards’ by themselves will not do. The hotel complex may be possible after a favorable environmental impact study, but the disappearance of another wet land along with until then ‘untouched’ and ‘unspoiled’ land will be a fact with which future generations will have to live.  Yet arguments against the hotel will always invoke the enraged owners and developers who would immediately point out but such investments will create jobs and bring tourists to the area. Rarely will any argumentation in favor of just letting nature alone be able to stand up to those who wish to develop the land and who claim for themselves to be on the progressive side. For a good argumentation that shall find support in public, there is needed another kind of media and educational policy, but also a different approach to business and the economy based on what is happening to both nature and mankind by no longer interacting in an intelligible way. Instead over alienation and the production of waste of various kinds leaves most of the people if not indifferent then unknowledgeable as to what could be done to ensure a sustainable development. It goes without saying that this is impossible as long as crucial indicators are not known to the public and thereby the working and living with these indicators not a part of daily life. Only once that is a given, then people will know what appropriate measures to take. If they know how to respond to signs of hunger in their stomach or when the gasoline tank of their cars is shown to be nearly empty, they respond and take the appropriate measures. What is needed, therefore, is a new kind of learning process by which the entire set of indicators become known and as a natural culture begins to reflect itself even in good habits by not leaving the garbage behind after a pick-nick in the forest.

Distortion and destruction of these measures, and how they constitute a set of critical factors, come from a wrong concept of economy being applied for the sake of appearing to be successful. To illustrate this ‘irrationality’, over and again human history is filled with absurd stories of some drive to make money but at such great losses that there is hardly anything left in way of cultural identities and natural spaces open to all. In the United States such absurdity reaches a critical level when national parks have to start control of the masses of people wishing to enter with everything they can bring along, including their mobile campers, while at the same time President Bush signs a policy measure liberating these parks for use of motor sleighs despite a study showing more such routes lie outside these parks and only a minimal percentage inside. Again business interests override environmental concerns as if a striving economy promises taking care of the environment in a better manner than a society marked by unemployment and a low level of growth, that is without any incentives for investors who wish to make more money with the money they have already. Clearly that leads to a market economy based on such financial interests that reinforce not merely the consumption of all resources, but of money itself. Pension funds in England may not be invested in land and property, but clever accountants and business people managing that fund point out but this does not prohibit investments abroad. Subsequently new hotel complexes go up in Greece with the finances coming from such and other similar funds that allow for the ‘working of the money’ until it is time to pay up. The risks involved if there are liquidity and cash flow problems are but a part of making this kind of adventure appear to be challenging, when in fact it is but an institutional exploitation of a set of needs served in a way that vital needs of an open man – nature relationship are considered to be but secondary or else it takes on the form of a privileged area accessible to only those who can afford it.

There is another way of illustrating the term ‘economy’. To everyone having lived in areas of great draught, saving water would determine the daily habits, including re-using the water for the showers to water the plants or to flush the toilet. Such a strategy of reducing waste of water implies an economy is needed especially given the growth of population, but also the need for water. This includes swimming pools and car wash facilities.

Of course, innovation does not stop there. It is known that new car wash facilities recycle water and attempt to do without too much wastage of water. Yet the overall increase in use of cars as means of transportation since 1945 has been tremendous. The ratio man build environment / nature has changed dramatically to the disadvantage of nature, that is un-built and untouched land. This includes the encroachment on the rain forests by greedy farmers and exploiters of wood but also the kind of adventure tourism that penetrates for excitement purposes into the last remote areas of the world. The discussion around the ‘ecological footprint’ indicates that this ratio has been adversely reversed around all cities. Most indicative is the kind of description coming out of Johannesburg itself: the place of meeting being at the same time the best demonstration of what is going wrong in a world no longer knowing its limits.

Respect for nature or even the living with rather than against nature begins with a simple insight at philosophical level. An Indian said the moment he shows the white man a beautiful spot of land with a wide-open horizon, he does not enjoy that view but gets immediately down to business by building a fence. The moment the Earth is claimed as private property, a different legal and economic system springs up bypassing the need for collective decisions that uphold and safeguard the life of everyone. For instance, in Greece it was long considered to be near to a holy law that no one should be barred from access to the beach, to the shoreline, to the sea. In reality, that law has now been violated in many ways since money can only be made now by perverting this social and collective freedom into a special privilege for those who can afford it.

One of the most absurd arguments about sustainable development is the one that only the rich can afford laws intended to protect the environment. What is not seen is the absolute poverty in the experience of nature as an outcome of the artificial world created by business. It all began with the slogans of air-conditioned hotels that the world outside would be dangerous. Gone was with that the simple holiday on a camping bed beside the sea and underneath trees spending shadow and protection as in the days of Odyssey when he climbed exhausted ashore. By making the world appear hostile, special security fences, video cameras, drive ways etc. are needed to keep things apart, but it does not reflect what becomes of a world regarded as hostile to human life on this globe!

Why the need to say this: sustainability is about what people can support. Warning, including the warning about global warming, does not suffice when the words of Virgil are not heeded. The absence of a relationship by mankind to nature governed by wisdom is an indication of something amiss in philosophy, but also in business practices, engineer designs, architectural conceptions and in general how traffic and transport systems intermesh with the irrational drive to have everywhere cement, buildings and more streets for cars to pass from one place to another.

As the poet William Carlos Williams said: we live in a world in which the products have gone crazy and all of us are caught si’tting in a car without driver ’. This image means we don’t really know where we are heading with the drive towards more and more cars, faster and faster mobility, while the authorities are frantically trying to catch up with autobahns and main streets being not over-flooded, but congested with potential voters willing to take their revenge on the authorities for not building still wider streets.

Sue Tilden, an American planner, explained a key solution to sustainable development heeding the needs of nature and not only of business, would have to rely on ‘replica planning’. It means the overall solution has to be repeated in many simple and everyday steps. The solution must address the system as a whole but also give individuals the freedom to move within sensible limits not taken as restrictions but as a natural way of moving on this planet.

Naturally when there are the experiences of landing on the moon behind us, this is not easy to suggest as a possible solution, yet there is like the river the need for the wisdom to go around some rock rather than through it. Man made tunnels and straightened out rivers to speed up transport is actually a testimony to the concept of trying to do away with any kind of resistance, but that means becoming more and more alienated from nature, that is the earth, including water, air, animals and altogether the kind of environment conducive for all to live together.

But once people live together in cities, the jump from a natural to an artificial border could not be greater. In the latter case, many subsystem begin to exist independent from the city as a whole, but then it is true that garbage collection, electricity and water supply, food distribution, education, entertainment etc., conjoin as subsystems to make the whole viable.

Clearly we have a critical case here that the private car transportation as subsystem has become a most powerful drive of the economy leading to all kinds of decisions from every bigger streets to all kinds of image making linkages between nature and the car. It is almost fascinating to see how the advertisement of the carmakers wishes to return to the wildness of nature as if one car is like a wild stallion racing through the water. The same kind of illusion is used by a certain cigarette company wishing to create the association to the Wild West and the camp-fire with only a clear night sky above when lighting up that flavored cigarette. Indeed, the illusion of being still in touch with wildness as impetus of justification to consume more and more space is one of the key blind spots in the system.

Absurd in this regard is that the departing mayor of Athens, Mr. Avromopoulos, is taking the city itself to court. He wishes to do away with the old railway linkage between Kifissia and Piraeus. His argument is that this railway line is taking away valuable land from the possibilities of cars to travel directly between these two points of greater Athens. This is a city of over 4 Millionen people and showing right now that the impact of the Olympics is not working in favor of public transport as was the case in Barcelona, but serves as an excuse to build ever greater road systems all of which cut through the city without regard as to who lives left and right of these streets. By reinforcing urbanization and sub-urbanization, further corrosion of man build area versus nature is allowed to take place. Key questions are here like elsewhere the amount of power given not only to the car maker industry and their service branches, but also to the construction industry. Indeed, speculation on building new houses has replaced putting money on the stock market. It promises higher returns especially if more people wish to move to more quiet places on the outskirts of any city. In return, this will increase the traffic flow and the time consumed in just getting from point A to point B.

A call from Johannesburg indicates that traffic created by 50 000 persons converging upon one place is tremendous. What if the contradictions between means and aims become thereby a key topic of the summit, what if trying to resolve the contradictions leading to unsustainable development in Johannesburg itself would mark a turning point in a global debate in reference to unknown localities all suffering from the same neglect of a global system?

So while those 50 000 or more persons depart for that summit, it will be important to recapture some main points made within an overall systematic approach to the question, but what does it take to achieve sustainable development within a world that does not believe in itself.

At the same time, a book by Naipaul about “Beyond Belief” clearly indicates what things are amiss in not merely Europe or in the United States, but in Pakistan, Iran, Indonesia and Malaysia. It has to do with the theory of conversion from no belief to absolute belief in something, and may it be in living only in a society of believers. That means religious streams have since Chomeiny in 1978 articulated an anti-Western value system. The crisis in the Middle East and the global war against terrorism leading to ever more military measures underlines further the fact that the issue of sustainable development can be easily overshadowed by other issues. Solutions to violence through more violence aggravate problems of living together peacefully on this globe.

In brief, the summit has to have a context defined by human understanding to make things possible. If a practical working with indicators is to bring about another kind of public debate and awareness, then the value premises of the current global economy have to be questioned in view of what will allow or not to achieve altogether ‘sustainable development’. The summit is but a reflection of ongoing efforts to contribute towards such a global and local success as it makes sense to remain ‘economical’, even if literacy, governmental services, daily consumption of not merely basic goods but also luxury and other ones is a given (Keynes). The best way to enter such a collective and individual work is to measure the outcome of the World Summit according to the ten-finger system of CIED, in order to bring into the flow of information about key and side events some systematic comprehension based on the logic of questions derived from very simple observations.

The World Summit 2002 has undertaken itself to fulfill four strategic objectives:

  1. increased global equity and an effective global partnership for sustainable development
  2. better integration of environment and development at the international level
  3. adoption of environment and development targets to revitalize and provide focus to the Rio process; and
  4. more effective action at national level with stronger international monitoring


While the first one is clearly about partnership and relates, therefore, politically to the key term ‘coalition of responsibility’, the second one is both a value premise and goal to be achieved by such global partnership aiming to work out the conditions for fulfilling the objective of sustainable development. Whether or not this can be achieved by ‘better integration of environment and development’ remains to be seen, for skeptics would argue already here not integration, but avoiding and stopping certain developments would only make possible a higher respect and regard for nature while the ‘environment’ ought not to be so much protected, as left alone – something given the world population growth and with it the expanding cities others would argue is an impossible thing to do. Still a poet like Paula Meehan in Ireland would say, there is a difference between untouched nature or wild spaces and where man has to intervene as the discussion about reasons for forest fires indicate.

The third strategic objective defines framework conditions for the implementation of such an aim. The translation into policy measures derived from Agenda 21 and the outcomes of Rio is an ongoing institutional process. CIED would call this the refinement process of also planning methodologies.

It has been said that Agenda 21 although of global nature tended to become isolated a local level with hardly any linkages to other activities of similar nature. Another evaluation has added the vital point that Agenda 21 can only work if accompanied by administrative and such institutional reforms that are conducive to decentralized governance, that is with such a political sustainability capable of upholding the reform and implementation process.

Finally, and something very much akin to the kind of free space the European Commission wishes to claim for itself, the interplay between national and international levels requires monitoring and evaluation according to politically acceptable means of measurements. Exactly here the political pressures and mediations are needed since no political authority, including national governments, wish to be exposed unnecessarily in the eyes of their own public. Again this indicates the trade-off between really critical analysis and what appears to be feasible within the given institutional frameworks.

As if ‘political compromises’ is not sufficient a term to describe and to understand what ongoing political mediation processes imply, nor ‘political realism’ really something desirable to be evoked, still solutions sought and found are by definition only solutions if they sustain themselves, that is are proven over time as contributing towards ‘sustainable development’.

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